Read Lifeblood Online

Authors: Penny Rudolph

Tags: #Fiction / Mystery & Detective / General, #Fiction / Mystery & Detective / Women Sleuths, #Mystery fiction, #Los Angeles (Calif.), #Recovering alcoholics/ Fiction, #Women alcoholics/ Fiction, #Women alcoholics, #Recovering alcoholics

Lifeblood (2 page)

BOOK: Lifeblood
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Without further ado, Mrs. Mac began asking questions.

For the third time, Rachel was saying no, she couldn’t pay for the boys’ medical care and didn’t know who might do so, when a short man wearing what looked like a large shower cap stuck his head in the door. “You the lady who brought in those two kids?”

“Yes, but I don’t….” Rachel stopped when she saw the look in his eyes.

He plucked off his eyeglasses, wiped the back of his hand across his forehead, and removed his cap revealing dark, curly hair. “I’m afraid I have sad news.”

For a fraction of a second Rachel’s eyes closed almost involuntarily. “I got them here as fast as I could.”

“It wouldn’t have mattered much. The one kid’s been dead a while.”

The back of Rachel’s index finger rose and covered her mouth as if to stop a sound.

“The good news,” the man was saying, “is the other is alive. Badly dehydrated, but alive. We’ll be admitting that one.”

Chapter Three

Dr. Emma Johnson strode down the hospital corridor faster than most people could keep up with. Her Hush Puppy walking shoes squeaked a bit on the vinyl tile.

A child for God’s sake. Ten or eleven. And the other one DOA. What the hell…? She passed four rooms and turned left into the fifth.

The new arrival was in the third bed, nearest the window. Emma scanned the chart. Blond hair just beginning to gray swung forward as she studied it, and lines deepened in a face saved from plainness by wide-set blue eyes and a smile that dazzled even the most frightened children. But she wasn’t smiling now.

The child she was examining was not conscious. Contusions at the left shoulder and both wrists, abrasions along the right leg. Dehydration. Malnutrition. But alive.

She examined her new young patient from head to foot. Was this one of the two she had seen briefly earlier? Maybe. Maybe not. Mexican, though. Or if the child lived in the area, maybe Central American. Spanish/Native at any rate. The damn Spaniards had gotten around.

Emma brushed the child’s short hair back looking for more bruises. There was another abrasion at the right temple. Most injuries had been duly noted by the ER people, but they had missed the abrasions at the ends of the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand. What was that all about? She tapped the plastic bag that hung from the stand at the head of the bed and eyed the tube that led to the needle taped against the lax arm.

Laying her hand for a moment against the thin cheek she wondered how this happened. This degree of dehydration. Probably a wetback. Probably couldn’t keep up. Abandoned. No parent or guardian listed. How could a parent leave a child like this behind? Surely this one was too young to have crossed the border alone. Had the agribusiness barons stooped to luring children this age to pick strawberries or whatever? Did anything need to be picked in October?

Was this a candidate for a stay in the charity ward? Emma examined the child’s face, the narrow shoulders and thin arms. That might be better than whatever lay ahead for this one. No, he was just too young. She took a ballpoint pen, tapped it across her lips.

The child’s head rolled from one side to the other. Life was returning.

999

Gabriel Lucero squinted at the prescription he was filling. The toothpick he was chewing broke. He removed it, picked the bit of wood from his tongue and bit down again on the remainder. He’d quit smoking ten years before, but he’d be damned if he would give up toothpicks.

A little too much sun had added a year or two to his appearance. His eyes once had a flash of humor behind them. Now they were just a somewhat stale brown. The tie below his chin was badly knotted and light-years beyond its prime. Above the toothpick, the broad nose was a little crooked, adding to a slightly scruffy look. Brown hair had just enough curl to outwit his efforts to tame it. Not that he cared. Not these days anyway. Gel was out. Not that it was vain or sissy. It made his hair feel like it was made of plastic.

Gabe had left Albuquerque, after Ronnie, his wife of eleven years, had discarded him like a coat gone out of style. Someone else went better with her new wardrobe. Monty something. Monty owned a winery. Gabe hadn’t even been suspicious when she kept talking about vitriculture and oenology, which he later decided sounded like a pathogen discovered by a doctor wearing rubber gloves.

Ronnie was a CPA and Gabe thought the bottles of Merlot she brought home were just “professional courtesy” gifts from a client. Right.

He didn’t miss Ronnie so much anymore, but he did miss Wendy. His Little Miss. Nine years old and already it was obvious she was going to be drop-dead gorgeous. Maybe he should have stayed in Albuquerque. But it was too damn painful when he ran across Ronnie and Wendy with Monty-the-oenologist.

So Gabe had taken the first job he found that let him work four ten-hour days a week. The work schedule at Jefferson Medical Center’s pharmacy allowed him to fly out often to see Wendy. At first he’d gone back every weekend, but there wasn’t a lot you could do with a kid in a hotel. The Albuquerque zoo was world class, but how long could you gaze at gorillas?

Now, a few months after his arrival, Gabe didn’t much like LA. Way too much traffic, for starters. Everybody rushing out to sit on the freeways and suck in that car exhaust. No wonder the smog was so bad. Amazing that anyone lived past the age of sixteen without coming down with black-lung.

The so-called Metro system was a joke unless you worked and lived in exactly the right places. And if CalTrans had a game plan for improving traffic it seemed aimed at making commutes so miserable that people would move to Alaska or Ohio or anywhere else. And then there was the added insult of the brush and forest fires. His eyes burned even with the doors and windows of his South Pasadena condo closed.

Maybe he should move to Santa Monica. Less smog, but a quantum leap in commute time. Why did so many people want to live in this God-forsaken place?

Gabe stared again at the prescription, closed one eye, then the other. MDs weren’t exactly known for decent handwriting, but usually he could make it out. He was barely forty. Did he need bifocals already?

“Hey-hey my friend.”

Gabe swung around.

“It’s a glorious day out there.” Gordon Cox grinned at him like a Dodgers pitcher after a no-hitter. Gordon had one of those forever-little-boy faces: soap-scoured apple cheeks, ears that despite their small size managed to stick out a little. At eighty Gordon would look like a choir boy with gray hair. Or if he dyed his hair, he’d look like Dick Clark, except nobody would remember Dick Clark by then.

Gordon was maybe five-ten, with narrow shoulders and a small-boned body, impeccably neat, with just a slight paunch beginning to appear at his belt. He was always, unalterably pleased with life. Gordon was the Zyrco Pharmaceuticals rep.

Gabe smiled in spite of his foul mood. “You mean you can actually see the mountains?”

“Well, not quite that glorious,” Gordon said. “You wait till winter, though. That’s when you can see the mountains. I never figured that out.”

“You mean there are maybe four days a year you don’t need a gas mask?”

“Something like that. But what a small price to pay to live at the center of the universe. This is where it happens, my friend.”

Gabe removed the remains of the toothpick from his mouth and tossed it into a waste basket beneath the counter. “New York might quibble with that. And some of us see this particular center of the universe as a black hole.”

“Maybe.” Gordon set two black cases on the floor.

Gabe watched him brush off the sleeves of his suit jacket. “How do you do it, Gordo?”

“Do what?”

“How do you stay so neat? You could pass for a Mormon any day of the week. Or if your neck was just an inch or two thicker, you’d look like standard issue FBI. Dark suit and tie, white shirt, shoes with a mirror shine….”

“I keep telling you, Gabe, this is LA. If you want people to notice you, go for the neat, bland look. Makes you stick out like a topless dancer in church.”

Gabe grunted. “More likely, it’s the salesman mystique. Neat. Orderly. Interchangeable smiles.”

“I’m not really a salesman.”

“Funny. You look like a duck, quack—”

“Come on. You know full well there’s a lot more to my job than that. I’m the pharmacist’s best friend, to say nothing of the docs’.” Gordon unsnapped one of the cases and tossed a fat brown envelope toward Gabe, who grabbed it before it hit the floor.

“The ten most prescribed medications in the U-S-of-A are in there,” Gordon said. “Free samples. When you get someone you know is having trouble paying for their pills, slip ’em some freebies.”

Gabe knew that Gordon, like any pharmaceutical rep, was into sales big-time. None of them would have a job if they didn’t sell a lot. But Gordon didn’t hound the docs like some of the reps. He didn’t hand out Dodgers or Lakers season tickets or other personal freebies. Gordon did his business by just being a great guy. Friendly, funny, helpful.

You might even call him a philanthropist. Gordon could be counted on to be there if you needed him.

Chapter Four

Rachel was having dinner with Hank Sullivan at Luigi’s, a little Italian restaurant that had opened on Wilshire. After the ugly mess of her day, the kids, the hospital and all, she had called him to postpone their date, but he had sounded like he was really looking forward to it, so she made up another reason for calling.

He had wanted to take her to Azalea at the New Otani downtown. “But you know me,” she had said. “It’s been so long since I have dressed like an adult, I’ve forgotten how.”

Now she swished a slab of still-warm bread around in the plate of olive oil, garlic, Parmesan cheese and herbs, and finished recounting her awful discovery in the back of the white van.

“Pretty awful, all right,” Hank said. “On the other hand, it was lucky for the one boy. You probably saved his life.”

Rachel frowned thinking about it. “Why would anyone do something like that to children? Why were they locked in that van and left to starve?”

His sandy eyebrows tilted up as they often did when he looked at Rachel. “God only knows, sweetheart.” He flicked a shock of straight hair away from his eyes. He needed a haircut. He often did.

Rachel gave a small smile in spite of herself. That stubborn hair the color of winter wheat was one of the reasons she loved him. “They were kids who should have been in grade school, middle school at most,” she said, smile disappearing. “They were just left there to die, Hank.”

“What about the van?” he asked. “Maybe the cops could trace it.”

“It was gone when I got back from the emergency room. The murderer had great timing.”

“Murderer?”

Rachel’s eyebrows tightened into a straight line. “What else would you call it? Those boys were left there to die. And one of them did.”

Hank peered into her face and shook his head. “Damn, sweetheart. I’m sorry this happened.”

The lines in his face where dimples might have been, deepened. “Mind if I have a glass of wine?”

Mouth full of salad, Rachel just shook her head. Which was a lie. Tonight she did mind. The morning’s events had shaken her. She was depressed and uptight. And okay, irritable. And she, too, wanted a glass of wine. But alcoholism was a tricky, beguiling fiend. Even one sip could put her on the path back to the hole she had crawled out of a few years ago.

The waiter brought a glass of Shiraz and Rachel tried not to watch as Hank raised it to his lips. She dropped her eyes, picked up her glass of ice water, then set it down harder than she meant to. The lemon slice inside swirled in its choppy sea of ice.

Rachel made her way through a plate of fettuccini Alfredo.

Hank kept eyeing her as if she was a river and he needed to find a safe place to cross.

When the table had been cleared and they were sipping cappuccino, he reached over and touched her hand—the left one where the diamond sparkled. “The papers have come,” he said. “The divorce is done. Let’s set a date.”

Rachel gaped at him.

“A date,” he said again. “As in getting married. You want to go to Vegas?”

“Now?” Rachel reached again for her water glass and hid the flush she could feel rising into her face by taking a swallow.

Why this reaction? He had been there—really been there for her—more than once. She loved him. Didn’t she?

“Why Las Vegas?”

“I hear there’s less red tape there.”

“I, uh…I’m not sure this is a good time.” She was used to being engaged. Engaged was wonderful. Marriage, well, that would be different. She needed a little time to contemplate it.

Hank frowned. “You want to wait?”

“Maybe. A little while.”

“Like till when?”

“I don’t know. It just seems so sudden. I wasn’t thinking along those lines. I need a little time.” Don’t be a fool. You’ll lose him. What did you think engagement meant?

“We’re not exactly kids, Rachel.”

“What did you have in mind? Just up and run off some weekend?”

Hank put his hand back on his side of the table. “You don’t seem like the type to want a big do.”

“Well, I do have a father, and I wouldn’t want him to get within a hundred miles of Vegas. He gets into enough trouble right here in Gardena.” Marty, Rachel’s dad, was a serious gambler—sometimes so serious he forgot to eat and sleep, to say nothing of running out of money.

Hank’s shoulders and eyebrows rose in sync. “Okay. Then what—”

Rachel cut him off. “You don’t seem to understand. I can’t talk about it right now. I heard this tapping in the middle of the night. One of those kids had worked a bolt out of someplace in that van and was dinging it against the door trying to tell someone he was dying. I heard it and I was too damn lazy to get up. If I had, just….” Rising, as tears distressed her further by threatening to spill, she brushed at her face with her napkin and headed for the door of the restaurant.

Hank hurriedly dropped enough money on the table to cover the bill and went after her. Two blocks down the street, he caught up with her and led her back to his green Mustang.

“I’m sorry,” she said, her face collapsing again.

BOOK: Lifeblood
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ads

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